Turning the Cheek — What it Means and Doesn’t Mean
We’ve all experienced people attacking us without just cause. I’m not referring to severe criminal assaults, which is a another subject, but rather any type of non-criminal attack, like insults, challenges to fight, gossip, slander, snubbing or rejection. If the people attacking you have no good reason to come against you then the reason must be of the flesh. It may be arrogance, hostility, envy, jealousy, rivalry or simply because you’re light and they’re darkness. Whatever the reason, what does the Bible teach us to do in such situations? Here how Jesus’ said to handle enemies:
“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, (28) bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. (29) If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.”
Paul taught the same thing and referred to it as “overcoming evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Jesus’ opening statement in verse 27 reveals that he was specifically addressing believers dealing with “enemies.” An enemy is anyone who is hostile toward you without just cause and engages in antagonistic behavior, like gossip, slander, insults, etc.
Accountability and Justice
Jesus plainly taught that if a fellow Christian offends you in this manner, you have the right to confront and correct him or her; you can even call upon other mature believers to help with the situation if necessary; in fact, you can ultimately expel the person from your life if s/he refuses legitimate correction (Matthew 18:15-17). This clearly shows that Jesus cared about accountability and justice. He doesn’t want abusers getting away with their offenses, whether intentional or not. It’s also clear he cared about keeping relationships alive and functional in the body via confrontation, correction, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. The Lord does not want lifelong grudges to develop between spiritual family.
But when dealing with enemies who are unbelievers it’s necessary to take a different approach. Why? Because unbelievers are spiritually unregenerated and alienated from God; it’s therefore next to useless to correct them for an offense if they don’t acknowledge or respect the basis of the correction, i.e. Scriptural morality. Even though you may eventually have to go this route when dealing with particularly calloused clods, like when Peter and Paul openly rebuked two devious magicians, the initial approach you want to take is to apply the applicable techniques of overcoming evil with good, the gentler forms of good, that is.
“If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.”
This instruction has understandably provoked some controversy over the centuries. Does Christ mean we should be “doormats” to abusive people? Doesn’t he care about justice?
We know that Jesus cared about justice, as pointed out above, not to mention justice is a foundational part of the LORD’s character as verified by numerous passages (e.g. Psalm 9:8, 9:16, 89:14, 97:2 & Isaiah 61:8).
As for being passive doormats, no, this is not what Christ was encouraging, but neither does he want us to be quick-tempered brawlers. Remember when Jesus instructed his disciples in Matthew 10:23 to “flee” if they were persecuted in one place and go where they might be better received? If the Lord wanted believers to be doormats for abuse he would have told them to stay and suffer the mistreatment. If he wanted us to be rash brawlers he would have told them to stay and duke it out. Of course “fleeing” has a negative connotation so it might better be described as escaping. Regardless, the point is that Jesus doesn’t want us to be passive doormats in such situations. He wants us to be active.
One effective way we can be active, as shared in the article Spiritual Warfare — the Basics is by getting violently aggressive with the spiritual forces of evil who manipulate people like puppets – releasing God through prayer and speaking in faith – but this is something done behind the scenes.
What should we do in the midst of abuse? Departing the situation is a last-resort option since “fleeing” implies defeat; yet even Jesus utilized this option when he was about to be thrown off a cliff in Luke 4:28-30 and stoned in John 8:59. This proves, incidentally, that when Jesus said, “Do not resist an evil person” (Matthew 5:39), he didn’t mean it in an absolute sense, as in “Don’t ever resist an evil person under any circumstances.” How so? Because Jesus himself resisted hostile people who were attempting to murder him in both of these cases. He resisted them by refusing to submit to their criminal intentions. He also resisted those who simply wanted to seize him (John 7:30,44). The only time he allowed himself to be unjustly apprehended was in Gethsemane because it was God’s will that he die for humanity. This is addressed in more detail in my book The Believer’s Guide to FORGIVENESS & WARFARE, available here (both print and eBook versions). In any case, although escaping persecution is a legitimate option it’s obviously a last-resort choice. So, what should we do if not escape? Jesus set an example of love, wisdom and self-control when faced with volatile situations. He refused to allow hostile people to victimize him by drawing him into the realm of the flesh. Christ showed how to be the master of the situation rather than the victim. Let me explain.
What “Turning the Cheek” means
Concerning turning the cheek, in Matthew’s account Jesus specified an enemy striking the right cheek (Matthew 5:39). Since most people are right-handed this indicates a backhanded slap to the face, an act of disrespect in that culture (see 1 Kings 22:24, Acts 23:2 & 2 Corinthians 11:20). So Christ was addressing personal insults and not being physically assaulted, which is criminal. To turn the cheek simply meant to initially ignore any act of disrespect and contempt. This is not just a New Testament principle; the Old Testament teaches it as well:
A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult.
Does this mean you’re obligated to perpetually “turn the cheek” to the same person who keeps spitting on your peaceable grace? No. Turning your other cheek to the offender would indicate overlooking his (or her) insults at least twice. After all, you only have two cheeks, facially speaking. Overlooking an antagonist’s insults a couple of times is in accordance with James’ instructions to “be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). Being “slow to become angry” is in the same context as being “slow to speak.” Just as being slow to speak doesn’t mean we should never speak, so being slow to anger doesn’t mean we should never resort to righteous anger. To “turn the cheek” means to make peace a priority. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said (Matthew 5:9), but this doesn’t mean to make peace an idol and pursue it at all costs, just that you should always initially strive for peace “if it is possible, as far as it depends on you” (Romans 12:18).
Be the Master in Conflict Situations, Not the Victim
Get a hold of this fact: When enemies insult you they’re trying to victimize you. They’re trying to draw you out of the realm of the spirit and into the realm of the flesh. Consciously or subconsciously they recognize that you are functioning on a higher level and they’re trying to bring you down to their carnal plane. If you respond with another insult you’re allowing yourself to be victimized. Don’t let such people ruin your day. Neither let them ruin your week or month or year or life. Don’t let them draw you into the flesh, as it will only aggravate the situation. Be a man or woman of self-control. Be a man or woman of love, wisdom and shrewdness who “turn away anger” rather than stir it up (Proverbs 29:8). Is this easy? No. The Bible readily acknowledges that a provoking fool is a huge hassle to deal with, a burden heavier than sand or stone (Proverbs 27:3); in fact, the Word bluntly states: “The words of fools start quarrels. They make people want to beat them” (Proverbs 18:6 NCV). Consequently, it takes true strength to control your flesh and overlook an insult rather than react in a retaliatory manner. Anyone can fly off the handle, cussing and brawling, but it takes strong character to calmly control oneself and remain the master of the situation. As it is written:
Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city.
A patient man who controls his temper is greater than a warrior who takes a city! Chew on that.
Needless to say, be a master not a victim; stay in control in volatile situations where people cuss at you, curse you and mistreat you in one form or another. It’s of the utmost importance you remember that Christ never instructed believers to be passive but to be active by “overcoming evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
This doesn’t necessarily mean you always have to be Mr. or Ms. Nicey-Wicey. After all, dealing with wolves calls for shrewdness and strength (Matthew 10:16). This is why Joseph dealt shrewdly with his devious brothers after he became governor of Egypt (Genesis 42-44). This is why Jesus dealt forthrightly with the ungodly religionists of Israel (Matthew 23). This is why both Peter and Paul boldly rebuked two sorcerers (Acts 8:9-24 & 13:8-12). This is why God Himself deals shrewdly with the crooked and deceitful (Psalm 18:25-27).
Please look up these passages and meditate on them; God’s Word will set you FREE. For too long the body of Christ has either ignored such Scriptures or taught the subject in an unbalanced manner. But “the truth will set you free,” Praise God!
The Lord instructed his disciples, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). “Shrewd” refers to skill or sly cunning in practical matters, like when Paul mischievously implemented “divide and conquer” tactics when held before the two sects of the Sanhedrin (Acts 23:6-8). Christians today are often too nice, naïve and gullible yet Jesus said we need to be shrewd while maintaining our innocence. He even gave an entire parable commending the shrewdness of a wasteful manager who was about to lose his job (Luke 16:1-9). Why would Jesus encourage us to be skillfully cunning? He explained it himself: because we’re amongst wolves. By all means, walk innocently before your Creator but sweetness and naiveté won’t cut it when you’re dealing with arrogant, hostile, deceitful people like Joseph’s ten wicked brothers who wanted to murder him and sold him into slavery to a distant country. Such wolves will automatically regard niceness and gullibility as marks of weakness and take advantage. In short, they’ll chew you up and spit you out! This explains why Joseph pretended to be a stranger to his brothers when they came to Egypt essentially begging for food some 21 years after they sold him into slavery. Joseph — who is a biblical type of Christ — spoke harshly to them and accused them of being spies. Why? He was being shrewd. Shrewdness was the only way to break them and bring them to a place of genuine remorse and repentance, which is precisely what Joseph did (read the full story in Genesis 37-50, keeping in mind that chapters 38 and 49 are not pertinent to the subject).
Believe it or not, this is in keeping with the very character of God, as seen here:
With the merciful You will show Yourself merciful; With a blameless man You will show Yourself blameless;
(26) With the pure You will show Yourself pure; And with the devious You will show Yourself shrewd.
(27) For You will save the humble people, But will bring down haughty looks.
Psalm 18:25-27 (NKJV)
This passage shows that God deals with us according to the way we choose to live and treat others. Don’t take this in the wrong spirit because verse 27 plainly shows that the LORD saves the humble so, no matter how bad we might miss it, if we’re willing to humbly repent God will respond with gentle forgiveness and restoration. Yet, notice how the Lord deals with devious people in verse 26: He shows himself shrewd. This reveals that being shrewd toward crooked, wolfish people is actually a godly characteristic! The Bible instructs us to “be imitators of God” (Ephesians 5:1). Consequently, if we’re dealing with devious people, like Joseph’s brothers, we need to imitate God by being shrewd, not nicey-wicey and lovey-dovey. How nice was Jesus with the Pharisees and other stuffy religionists after he had prayed for them and gently shared the truth with them for years? He openly rebuked them and called them “foolish people” who were “full of greed and wickedness” (Luke 11:39). Sometimes he would answer their devious questions in such a way that stunned them to silence (Luke 20:20-26) while others he’d refuse to answer their questions at all and asked them a question instead (Mark 11:27-33). Christ simply refused to be manipulated by these religious cons. Although this may not have been nice, it was certainly kind and good. After all, the kindest thing you can do for arrogant fakes like, the Pharisees, is openly rebuke them in the hope they’ll be shocked out of their deathly legalistic stupor. Although some devious people are incorrigible, like Judas Iscariot, shrewdness is the only way to break the ones who aren’t. This explains Jesus’ approach to the rigid religionists.
Responding to Insulting Fools
Your response to fools depends on whom you’re dealing with, the situation, and the leading of the Holy Spirit; it also depends on how much grace you’ve already offered. Notice these two seemingly contradicting proverbs placed side by side:
(4) Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.
(5) Answer a fool according to his folly or he will be wise in his own eyes.
The fact that these two contrasting statements lie side by side shows that the contradiction was intended. Some fools should be ignored while others should be answered in like manner. Again, it depends on the type of fool you’re dealing with, the situation and the leading of Holy Spirit, as well as how much grace you’ve already applied.
It’s no accident that the first verse encourages us to ignore the fool. This needs to be our initial response in such cases and we should only resort to answering the fool in like manner if our grace is repeatedly spurned. Have you already “turned the cheek”? Have you already blessed and prayed? Do you feel righteous anger stirring deep within you? Are you spiritually spent, so to speak? Then you have no other recourse but to resort to the “safety valve” noted in Romans 12:18. But, don’t worry; this “valve” is blessed of God. In fact, you’re still overcoming evil with good; it’s just that the “good” in this case is sternness and righteous radicalness rather than grace under pressure. You’re only redirecting because the calloused knucklehead in question has spurned your genuine attempts of goodwill and the wooing of the Spirit. You have the release to completely cut ties or otherwise. Be decisive and bold and trust your spiritual instincts.
It’s imperative that you get close to God and stay close because it’s impossible to be “led of the Holy Spirit” if you’re not tight with the LORD and spiritually sensitive. If you’re not committed to God and his kingdom there’s only one antidote: Get committed.
NOTE: This article was edited from The Believer’s Guide to FORGIVENESS & WARFARE. You can pick up a copy here for important details on this subject and all linking subjects, like “overcoming evil with good,” the “safety valve,” righteous anger, self-defense and dealing with criminal acts (both print and eBook versions are available at the link).
To view a video on this topic click here.
To view a video on how to deal with criminal acts go here.
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